Sunday, March 31, 2013

King Arthur and the Making of an English Britain

By Alan MacColl | Published in History Today Volume: 49 Issue: 3 1999 Alan MacColl explores the appropriation of the Arthurian legend for political ends by English monarchs from the twelfth century onwards.
King Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, detail from the "Christian Heroes Tapestry" dated c. 1385. "Arthur among the Nine Worthies is always identified by three crowns, which signify regality, on his standard, his shield, or his robe." -- Geoffrey Ashe, The Quest for Arthur's Britain [Praeger, 1969]Arthur as one of the Nine Worthies, tapestry, c.1385One of the oddest images of the 1997 General Election was produced by the Scottish Conservatives: a sword being drawn from a stone and hurled in the air to land point-down in the ground. While one can see what the Unionists were about – identifying the Scotland of Braveheart with the Britain of King Arthur – the appeal to the latter was ill-judged, betraying a misconception whose nature and origins are worth exploring. Though Arthur and the hotly-contested topic of his historical reality are no longer the subject of serious academic study, the ideological uses to which the legendary hero has been put are important for students of medieval and early modern Britain, and form part of the historical background to the current debate about the constitution of the United Kingdom.
Nowadays, the most interesting thing about the ‘historical’ Arthur is the way this hero of the Britons was appropriated by the descendants of their Saxon conquerors and incorporated into the history of the English, playing a key part in the development of their self-conception as a nation. The legendary British history established in the twelfth century is a narrative of English national unity, and also of empire, used repeatedly by English monarchs to further their attempts to subdue the rest of the British Isles. In this English context, even Arthurian romance is not politically neutral, but provides a symbolic focus for a culture whose assumed superiority justifies the domination of the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish.
The idea of an imperial British England drew its original authority from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138). In both Latin and English, the term ‘Britain’ has a contentious history arising from its use in conflicting senses. The land inhabited by the ancient Britons was roughly equivalent to the territory that became England and Wales and southern Scotland; this is the old Britain of King Lear and Cymbeline. Hence Britain often means England and Wales, or simply England itself. Until the seventeenth century Great Britain normally signifies England as distinct from Little Britain or Brittany: Wynkyn de Worde in 1529 calls Arthur ‘somtyme kyng of grete Brytayne now called Englande’. But Britain could also mean the entire island, Britannia insula. Geoffrey normally uses this sense. The bane of the early Scottish historians, the confusion has persisted to our own day.
Geoffrey’s History is part of a complex process of cultural expropriation and assimilation which began with the Norman Conquest. The Scandinavian settlers had been quick to assume the language and culture of France, but it would be a long time yet before their descendants had any great incentive to make comparable adaptations in England. It was in their past alone that the English possessed cultural property which their new rulers lacked. In the field of historical narrative, the deficiency was remedied by William of Malmesbury’s momentous History of the Kings of the English (c. 1125), in which the years since the Conquest were presented as the latest chapter in a story reaching back to the earliest history of the English people. To borrow a vivid Hollywood term, Geoffrey’s book is a prequel, filling in the history of pre-Saxon Britain and taking it back to the beginnings of European civilisation. Contemporaries were quick to see the connection, and from the outset the work was treated as part of English history.
To appreciate its appeal to English readers, we must look beneath its superficially Welsh appearance. It is misleading to describe it as a compilation of Celtic legends, as if it were like, say, The Mabinogion. Geoffrey’s edifice was constructed on the slight frame of accepted British history, derived from Latin works, notably the ninth-century History of the Britons. Using bits and pieces of material adapted from a multitude of other sources (most of them having nothing to do with Wales or Britain), he skilfully filled in this framework and gave it apparent solidity, binding it all together in a largely fictional narrative matrix. Geoffrey’s only identifiable Welsh source was a collection of the pedigrees of Welsh ruling families, closely similar to one which is still extant. Comparison with the latter shows that he treated this source as a novelist might the telephone directory, freely using the names of fifth- and sixth-century Welsh princes for his fictitious pre-Roman kings of Britain, and arbitrarily borrowing one genealogical sequence for the list of ‘other famous men’ who attend Arthur’s court at Caerleon. With this trivial exception, Geoffrey’s sources and models are overwhelmingly Latin and literary. Any Welshness is almost entirely on the surface.
It is not hard to understand why the History was accepted as genuine. The claim that the original Britons were Trojan exiles had the authority of the History of the Britons and invited flattering comparison with ancient Rome. Arthur’s astounding continental conquests put him in the company of Alexander and Charlemagne. Merlin’s prophecies would have been read with solemn attention because such dark words were known to conceal important truths. Even Geoffrey’s references to a mysterious Old Welsh source, ‘a certain very old book in the British language’, would have served to confirm his ‘authority’. No one familiar with medieval literary conventions would take this claim at face value. Originality was not a medieval virtue, and invention was often made respectable by the invocation of a fictitious authority. Auctoritas, ‘authority’, was a derived, not an intrinsic, quality. The whole rigmarole of the old book, a recent commentator observes, is part of Geoffrey’s self-presentation as an auctor.
By giving England the right sort of ancient history the work made her new rulers on a par with the French, allowing a discreet veil to be drawn over their real past as Viking marauders. If the Anglo-Normans had more to gain than the native English, both parties could now take pride in the British past, a ground where they could meet without contention – as it belonged to neither.
The imperial theme of the work is established in the opening account of the foundation of Britain by Brutus and his band of Trojan exiles. Here and elsewhere, readers would have recognised parallels with Virgil’s Aeneid, the epic of imperial Rome and, after the Bible, the most revered text of the Middle Ages. They would also have noticed allusions to Alexander the Great, particularly in the story of Arthur’s conception and the scene with the Roman emissaries at the feast of Caerleon, both of which Geoffrey adapted from one of the popular lives of the Macedonian conqueror.
Legendary narratives of national origin are common throughout the Middle Ages and after. The seventh-century Frankish Chronicle of Fredegarius purported to show that the Franks could trace their lineage back to Troy, and by the sixteenth century just about every nation in Europe, it seems, had claimed Trojan, Greek, Egyptian or Old Testament ancestry. It has been suggested that the proliferation of such narratives in the eleventh and twelfth centuries is related to the emergence of the nation state. They could also serve more readily definable political ends. The Trojan legend underpinned the claim of the Frankish kings, realised for a time in the restored western empire under Charlemagne, to be the true successors of imperial Rome.
For most modern readers, the terms ‘empire’ and ‘imperial’ carry values which did not apply in the Middle Ages. The primary sense of imperium is ‘rule’ or ‘dominion’, with no connotation of overseas territories, or oppressed indigenous peoples. Though ambitious monarchs, of course, aspired to as extensive an imperium as possible, the main point about being an emperor was that you did not have to take orders from anybody. This is the sense intended in Henry VIII’s Act of Appeals of 1533, which began by declaring that ‘the realm of England is an empire... free from the authority of any foreign potentates.’
Furthermore, the ‘British Empire’ is both older and younger than casual references to its 500-year history suggest. Coined in the mid-sixteenth century, the main sense of the term until early Victorian times was in relation to Great Britain and Ireland, with no particular overseas reference; it is not until 1857 that we find Thomas Hughes, in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, celebrating that Empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. While Geoffrey’s History no doubt strengthened the Normans’ title to their continental territories by showing that Gaul had once belonged to Britain, it is the British Empire of these islands that comes first. Brutus’s three sons represent the unity of England, Wales and Scotland, and Arthur’s first conquests after the defeat of the Saxons are of Scotland and Ireland. Among those who attend Arthur’s crown-wearing at Caerleon, the first mentioned are an affirmation of the unity of the whole island of Britain: the kings of Albany (which Geoffrey reminds us means Scotland) and Moray, those of North and South Wales and Cornwall.
What may represent an early attempt to use Arthur in the service of the English crown occurred in 1190, when the monks of Glastonbury Abbey claimed to have uncovered a tomb containing his remains along with those of Guenevere. According to one account, the exhumation had been suggested by Henry II after hearing of Arthur’s grave from a Breton minstrel. Certainly a demonstrably dead Arthur would have suited Henry’s purposes in Wales and Brittany, countering the legend of the hero’s return, then apparently used in both countries as a rallying-cry for resistance. But Henry had died in 1189, and his son Richard had higher aspirations, concerning Jerusalem.
Those of Henry’s great-grandson Edward I were more practical and nearer home. When he attached the Principality of Wales to the English throne in 1283, Edward made the Welsh surrender certain particularly precious relics as tokens of submission, including a piece of the true cross and the legendary crown of Arthur. On the King’s return to London in 1285, the trophies were carried in solemn procession to Westminster Abbey, and there presented at the high altar. We next hear of them eleven years later when they were paraded at the head of Edward’s army as he marched into Scotland. On the return journey, as ‘a sign of the resignation and conquest of the kingdom’, they were accompanied by their Scottish counterparts, most famously the Stone of Destiny.
Edward’s interest in the legendary British history also had a practical, legal dimension. In August 1300 Pope Boniface VIII had issued a Bull calling on him to abandon the war in Scotland and rejecting his claim to feudal superiority. The King’s reply the following year reiterates his claim, buttressing it with a host of examples beginning with Brutus’s division of the island of Britain among his three sons, Locrinus, who got Loegria or England, Camber who got Cambria or Wales, and Albanactus who got Albany or Scotland. On the death of Albanactus, it is argued, Albany reverted to Locrinus. Among further arguments, it is pointed out that Geoffrey tells of Arthur’s conquest of Scotland, and of the homage paid to him at Caerleon by the Scottish king Anguselus.
Though Edward’s officers came by their information by ordering a systematic search of royal and monastic archives, the history of imperial British England was not merely the province of government lawyers and monkish antiquarians. The story of Brutus and the British kings achieved an astonishing currency. Over 200 manuscript copies of Geoffrey’s Latin History survive, the majority of them English in origin, though the medieval provenance of the others extends as far south as Florence and as far east as Bavaria. It is one of the most frequently copied works of the whole Middle Ages. The legendary history also proliferated in vernacular versions, first of all in Anglo-Norman and English verse and then, in the thirteenth century, in an Anglo-Norman prose paraphrase, surviving in nearly fifty manuscripts. This is the chronicle generally known as the Brut, which also multiplied in Latin and English translations and which, with additions bringing it up to date with recent events, became the standard history of England in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Surviving in over 170 manuscripts, the English prose Brut is perhaps the most popular written work of these centuries. Chronicles compiled by individuals also often begin with a summary of the Brutus story, as do verse romances. The legendary history of Britain was thus current in all three languages of medieval England, and must have been universally known.
Throughout thirteenth-century Europe, the high tide of Arthurianism brought a fashion for chivalric tournaments and assemblies, or ‘Round Tables’. Nowhere was the idea embraced more enthusiastically than in the England of Edward I and his immediate successors. What is particularly striking about the Arthurian occasions of Edward’s reign is that they are not primarily displays to be watched, like most Tudor and Stuart masques and pageants, but dramatic performances in which king and court were the participants.
Edward held a round table at Nefyn, Caernarvon, in July 1284 to mark the conquest of Wales. The festivities included dancing in an upper chamber whose floor collapsed, causing the revellers to fall through. The celebrations for his second marriage in 1299 included Arthurian play-acting in which knights were named after those of the Round Table. During the concluding banquet, a squire rode in spattered with blood, calling on the king and his knights to take vengeance on the Welsh, whereupon they all vowed to do so. Further messengers followed, demanding vengeance on the Scots and others.
In 1306, after Robert Bruce had been crowned King of Scotland, Edward knighted his son Edward of Caernarvon at a ceremony at Westminster. At the banquet afterwards, servitors brought in a tray bearing two (confectionery?) swans covered with gold network. The King vowed before God and the swans that he would avenge the Bruce’s wrongs against God and the Church, after which he would go to the Holy Land, never to return. Prince Edward swore in turn that he would not sleep two nights in the same place until his father’s vow had been accomplished.
A striking example of life imitating art, Prince Edward’s vow is straight out of the Conte del Graal of Chrétien de Troyes, which includes a scene where Perceval swears never to sleep more than one night in the same place until he has achieved the object of his quest. We like to think of art and literature as appealing to some higher order of imaginative reality, untainted by the mundane and temporal crudities of ideology and politics. But it can be argued that in the English Middle Ages the romance of chivalry was one means by which the ruling classes defined and reinforced their identity as representatives of a superior civilisation.
With its wandering heroes, quests and trials, romance remains one of Western culture’s enduring images of the moral life. Taken in a more literal way, however, its military ethos, combined with its simple oppositions of good and evil, lend themselves to less worthy ends. Viewed in its reductive glass, the world becomes a place where the forces of righteousness wage war against an evil or inferior other. For medieval Christendom as a whole, that other was supplied by Jews and Muslims. For England in particular, from the twelfth century, its place was filled by the Welsh, the Scots, and above all the Irish.
A large part of medieval and modern ‘British’ history can be seen as a process of conquest and forcible anglicisation of Ireland, Wales and Scotland. The argument justifying English claims to these nations in terms of a moral obligation to redeem them from barbarism appears as early as the twelfth century – a medieval version, one Welsh historian remarks, of the White Man’s Burden. In earlier times there is no sense that the Celtic peoples are any different from the English. But by the mid-twelfth century, English cultural superiority was assumed, and we can see the beginnings of the stereotypes by which England was often to define her Celtic neighbours over the next 800 years. To cite a few contemporary examples, the Welsh are rude and untamed, the Irish are so barbarous that they cannot be said to possess any culture, the Scots toss babies on pikes.
John Gillingham has documented the appearance of anti-Irish prejudices in the twelfth century and their rapid hardening into stereotypes which became a powerful part of a new imperial ethos. Gerald of Wales, who, as Dr Gillingham observes, did more than any other writer to establish the standard English view of the Irish, continued to be read and translated until well into the sixteenth century. At the end of the fifteenth, all these stereotypes were given a further boost by Caxton’s popular Description of Britain, which provides a whole gallery from the Celtic nations.
The Tudors have sometimes been given the credit for a great Arthurian revival. In fact Henry VII’s interest in the British history represents a late stage in a fashion in royal genealogies which began earlier in the fifteenth century. In numerous surviving manuscripts, the lineage of Edward IV is traced back to his Welsh antecedents, and thence to Geoffrey’s British kings. When Henry Tudor commissioned a report on his British ancestry, the commissioners duly reported that the new King could trace his descent from Brutus. The theme was reflected in popular pageants at the beginning of Henry’s reign, and for obvious reasons the Tudor monarchs continued to make a point of their Welsh credentials. However, interest thereafter in British history as such appears to have been sporadic.
The naturalised Italian civil servant Polydore Virgil’s dismissal of the story of Brutus in his English History of 1534 marks a turning point in the fortunes of the British legend. Though all England would doubtless have agreed that Polydore was ‘the most rascall dogge knave in the world’, in the long run it did not matter. The more numerous and vehement the defences of the British history became, the more they confirmed that the subject was now up for debate. Henry VIII’s appeal to the story of Brutus, Camber, Albanactus and Locrinus, when he renewed the English claim of supremacy over the King of Scotland in 1542, is the last gasp of the tradition in which the legends could be read as having legal authority. Defences of Arthur and Brutus continued to pour from the presses, and British and Arthurian themes still played a prominent part in Elizabethan pageant and ceremony, but something had irrevocably changed. The debate is part of the background to Spenser’s The Faerie Queene of 1590 and 1596, in which though Arthur is the nominal hero of the poem, the author makes no use of either the British king’s life or the events and characters of Arthurian romance. No longer simple and literal, the whole thing has become the stuff of allegory and metaphor.
Nevertheless, the legend still retained considerable power, and Arthur and empire keep crossing one another’s paths in the national literature of Elizabethan England. Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation (1589) begins with Arthur’s Irish conquest as described by Geoffrey of Monmouth. The Faerie Queene celebrates the triumph of English imperialism in terms of the civilising power of Elizabethan gentility. It has been argued that the poem’s central fiction of the perfect gentleman abroad, represented by Arthur and the knights of Gloriana’s court, subduing evil and holding the forces of disorder at bay, reflects the Elizabethan colonial experience in Ireland. Such a reading puts clearly the relationship between the fictions of chivalric romance and the supposed political realities to which they correspond, English civilisation on the one hand and a dark, barbaric – and papist – Ireland on the other.
A coda to this brief account of the British history is supplied, ironically enough, by a Scottish monarch, James VI and I, who pursued the subject with a single-mindedness unequalled since the days of Edward I. James fancied himself as a second Arthur, with a mission to reunite Britannia, proposing in his proclamation of October 1604 to ‘discontinue the divided names of England and Scotland . . . , and take the name and stile of KING OF GREAT BRITTAINE’. Pageants, entertainments and court poetry repeatedly return to ancient British themes. Not surprisingly, James’s English subjects showed little enthusiasm for the project. The king seems never to have grasped that one of the chief meanings of ‘English’ was ‘not Scottish’. Besides, all the Arthurian and British machinery seems to the modern observer so patently self-defeating that one suspects a degree of English subversion. For 400 years Arthur had been an English hero, and the whole apparatus of the legendary British history had existed to further the cause of English empire. Everyone knew that Great Britain was simply the old name for England. James’s project was a lost cause. When Union came a hundred years later it was on English terms, a hard-headed affair designed to further the interests of the English establishment and its allies north of the Border, not to feed the quasi-mystical fantasies of an autocratic Scottish monarch.
The critical historiography of a rationalist age put paid to Arthur as an important political symbol. Brutus and his Trojans finally left the stage, and the English people began to reconstruct themselves in terms of their Anglo-Saxon past. But old ideas often die hard, particularly if they are built into language and serve an unrecognised ideological function. Introducing parliaments for the Scots and the Welsh, the current proposals for constitutional reform make no provision for an assembly to represent the English as a nation, the clear assumption being that they already have their own parliament in that of the United Kingdom. Beneath the modernising gloss lies a latter-day version of the old Anglocentric domestic imperialism. However, as Jeremy Black has suggested, one of the unintended results of the proposed changes may be a new sense of England as a unity distinct from Britain and the UK. Scots who wish their southern neighbour well must hope he is right. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s legacy of a British England and an English Britain has dogged us long enough.
For Further Reading:

  • Alan MacColl was Lecturer in English at the University of Aberdeen and is now a freelance author.

Further reading: 

Henry VI: A Misjudged King?

Few English monarchs have such a poor reputation as Henry VI. Yet he was held in high regard by the Tudors, says Michael Hicks, despite losing the Wars of the Roses.
It is hard to imagine reigns more catastrophic than those of Henry VI (r. 1422-61 and 1470-71). Succeeding to the throne as an infant, his long minority was followed by his disastrous majority, in which he lost both the Hundred Years War (1337-1453) and the first two Wars of the Roses (1459-61, 1469-71), both his realms in France (1453) and England (twice). Much blame has always been laid at Henry’s door. He did not compare well with his father, Henry V (1387-1422), a charismatic soldier and decision-maker made immortal by his victory at Agincourt in 1415.
Childlike and unimposing in appearance, Henry VI suffered insanity in 1453-55 and may never have fully recovered his mental health. He was no athlete, no soldier or jouster and no orator. Henry showed little inclination or aptitude for either the hard graft of government or for military command. Rather he was a model of the new devotional piety – his most lasting achievements were the great educational foundations of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. But such a trait, while desirable and highly commendable, was no substitute for effective rule. A pious prince, he found matters of state to be unwarranted interruptions. He let others, especially the dukes of Somerset and Shrewsbury, fight his wars in France and manage his affairs at home. In turn his great-uncle Cardinal Beaufort (1375-1447), William, Duke of Suffolk (1396-1450), Edmund, Duke of Somerset (1406-55), Humphrey, Duke of Buckingham (1402-60) and Queen Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) ruled England in Henry’s name, badly and selfishly, provoking violent outbursts of discontent that ultimately swept the regime away. Indeed, so completely passive was Henry that he has been portrayed by the historian John Watts in his 1996 biography, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship, as simply absent – a vacuum at the heart of government.
Henry’s many critics, both contemporary and modern, have overlooked the sheer impossibility of governing mid-15th-century England. Inheriting an unwinnable war against the might of France, Henry was plunged into a 15th-century credit crunch that bankrupted him, denied him both revenues and access to credit and enraged his subjects, who expected government somehow to solve its problems. Add to this the presence of a great nobleman and potential heir in Richard, Duke of York (1411-60), who staged both coups d’état and persistently stopped his monarch from ruling, and any king might have faltered. It is not really credible that Henry’s councillors were all uniformly evil. Nor does it make sense that the king was completely absent. There could have been no Wars of the Roses had he simply bowed to his critics in 1450, 1452 and 1455 and transferred the reins of government to York. No doubt Henry was ill-fitted for the crises that he faced and certainly all his particular initiatives failed, but there is more to his role than mere resignation and delegation.
Never having known a time when he was not king, Henry undertook all the formal duties of office. He presided over his court, over formal audiences, parliaments and judicial sessions. He received ambassadors and peers. His right to reign was undeniable. Henry was acutely conscious of the dignity of kingship. He expected respect, deference and obedience. Traitors and disparagers deserved death: he made a point of personally attending their bloody ends, as in Kent in 1451 and 1452. While able to gaol even dukes for long periods, Henry respected the blood royal and found it impossible therefore to treat the rebellious York as he deserved. The search for peace with France rather than effective prosecution of the war was Henry’s very own foreign policy. It was he who unwisely made unnecessary concessions to the French. In 1457 it was also he who drove through a thoroughgoing (but ill-fated) reconciliation with the Yorkists in the form of the ‘Loveday’ held at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1458, a formal peacemaking between the victors of the First Battle of St Albans of May 1455 and the heirs of their victims.
King Henry insisted on his royal prerogatives, especially that of mercy. He reserved for himself the right to pardon even when he was otherwise sidelined: during York’s Second Protectorate (1455-56), for example; in the Accord (1460) that enabled York to rule on his behalf; and in the constitutional arrangements for his Readeption (second reign) in 1470-71. Those seeking pardons were wise to find religious justifications, for instance in honour of Christ’s Passion, that appealed to the king himself. Henry insisted on establishing his expensive educational foundations, took a personal interest in Church appointments and could be a prudish moral censor, banning, for example, nude bathing at Bath. John Benet’s Chronicle attributed government actions to his personal anger, sorrow and disapproval. We still possess hundreds of warrants initialled by the king, often endorsed with his wishes – ‘The king wills’ – or with humble recommendations to him that make it clear that it was Henry who took the final decision. Henry may have been managed, but such final decisions were his.
While taking responsibility for his decisions, Henry did not acknowledge anybody to whom he was accountable but God and hence accepted no personal liability. He had the moral strength to stand by ministers who had carried out his instructions, most notably the Duke of Suffolk in 1449-50. Certain of his right to rule, he repeatedly resisted apparently overwhelming pressure from York, the people and Parliament on several occasions. He simply refused to give way. He approved, vetoed and deferred parliamentary bills regardless of circumstances. When York threatened the court with overwhelming force in 1455, Henry refused to surrender and declared his intention to seek advice. He was fortunate to survive the shower of Yorkist arrows and cannonballs at the First Battle of St Albans. Too much is inexplicable without acknowledging Henry’s obstinacy. The king’s loyalty to his ministers, councillors and courtiers, too often dangerously identifying them with himself, blinded him to the justice of any charges of personal misconduct against them. Henry’s stubborness, so admirable in some respects, was possible only because his loyal subjects drew back from the brink and would not depose their rightful king. It meant also that no political settlement could be negotiated and that real and justifiable political tensions could not be defused. Henry’s seemingly eternal willingness to forgive, not to hold past offences against the Yorkists and to accommodate York, did ultimately enable the defeated Yorkists to recover from their discomfiture and to prevail. However, it left Henry the moral high ground, albeit largely concealed for 500 years by Yorkist propaganda. He was still regarded generally as the rightful king in 1470, when he briefly recovered his throne.
With hindsight, Henry’s greatest defect was in his man-management skills, especially in his relations with Richard, Duke of York. York was not as blue-blooded nor as capable as he supposed himself to be, but he thought he was best suited to rule. York convinced himself that he had the public interest at heart and therefore could not commit treason, nor indeed perjure himself. He was amazingly persistent in his quests for power. He never seems to have convinced his fellow peers, however, and was indeed voted out of office by them in 1456. Henry unfortunately accepted York as exceptional and was unwilling to treat him as harshly or violently as York had treated the king’s other ministers. It was a fatal flaw that brought both men to ruin and to violent deaths. It would have been better to discipline York more effectively in 1452 or even to have executed him.
Yet Henry strove to be a good king. He was committed to good government and to the protection of the Church. He made good appointments. He even produced a son to succeed him – an obligation which, it has always been suspected, gave him no pleasure at all. Henry was never arbitrary in his rule and certainly no tyrant. He was always seeking advice as kings were meant to do, constantly convened great councils and parliaments and even on occasion allowed himself to be overruled. Unfortunately, so his critics claimed, all these councillors and therefore all their policies were evil. Drawn from the most noble, royal and experienced in the land, they appear suitably qualified. None could drive Henry to act in ways that he did not wish to. In fact Henry never had a favourite with that monopoly of advice or patronage that all favourites sought because Henry’s easy pliancy allowed him to be advised and persuaded by mere courtiers – by those who, in Sir John Fortescue’s words, could not (or should not be allowed to) advise him. If the king’s ministers and councillors took rewards from office, as was normal at the time, they also recognised the risks – as each in turn was eliminated – but were proud to serve their king. The decisions they persuaded Henry to make may not have been wise, but actually he had little freedom of choice. Undoubtedly naive, hesitant and perhaps even wilful, the king may often have misunderstood the real issues and was undoubtedly inflexible, but that did not make him unfit to rule. After all, he ruled as king for 39 years and was making his own decisions to the very end. All the disasters happened on his watch, but not much that went wrong was his personal fault. He has been misjudged.
Deserved or not, Henry’s memory was cherished. His tomb at Chertsey Abbey in Surrey became a major destination for pilgrims, who followed Henry to St George’s Chapel, Windsor when he was re-interred there in 1484 by Richard III (who probably used the pilgrims’ offerings to finance the move). Henry’s chaplain, John Blacman, compiled a memoir of his king’s pious doings and sayings, a collection of miracles was assembled and Henry’s nephew, Henry VII, attempted to have him canonised, albeit unsuccessfully. Although Henry VIII, as the grandson of Edward IV, found his Yorkist lineage more immediately useful in asserting his dynastic legitimacy, Henry VI was remembered warmly by the Tudors and their heirs, products themselves of the union of Lancaster and York.
Michael Hicks is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Winchester. His latest book is The Wars of the Roses (Yale University Press, 2010).
Further reading: 
  • Keith Dockray, Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou and the Wars of the Roses (Sutton Publishing, 2000)
  • R.A. Griffiths, The Reign of King Henry VI (Sutton Publishing, 2004)
  • Gerald Harriss, Shaping the Nation: England 1360-1461 (Oxford University Press, 2005)
  • A.J. Pollard, Warwick the Kingmaker: Politics, Power and Fame (Hambledon Continuum, 2007)
  • John Watts, Henry VI and the Politics of Kingship (Cambridge University Press, 1996)
  • B.P. Wolffe, Henry VI (Yale University Press, 2001)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Signposts: King Arthur

King Arthur

Image: DeAgostini/Getty Images

By Ronald Hutton | Published in Volume: 30 Issue: 4 
Ronald Hutton shows how historians' perceptions of the legendary figure have changed over recent times.

Forty years ago both scholarly histories and historical novels had a common view of Arthur: as a historical warrior, whose leadership enabled his people, the native inhabitants of post-Roman Britain, to halt the advancing tide of Anglo-Saxon conquest for about half a century. Nobody was exactly sure when this was, because it had been in the obscure period between 410 and 550, which has left almost no contemporary documents. Nonetheless, there was general agreement that Arthur had flourished somewhere in that time and had been the greatest British personality in it, establishing a fame which laid the basis for the later, more romantic and fantastic, medieval Arthurian legend.
This happy consensus had mostly been produced by the new discipline of archaeology, which had excavated some of the main sites associated with Arthur in that later and fully-developed legend, such as his birthplace at Tintagel and Cadbury Castle in Somerset, which local tradition held had been his court of Camelot. In each case, amid great publicity, spectacular remains had been found of occupation by wealthy people at just the right period. For many, this was enough to establish beyond reasonable doubt that the legend was rooted in historical truth and books such as Geoffrey Ashe’s The Quest for Arthur’s Britain (Pall Mall, 1968) and Leslie Alcock’s Arthur’s Britain (Allen Lane, 1971) carried this message to a wide readership. It was taken up by historians, who now felt encouraged to reconstruct a story for the years around 500 by combining the meagre early medieval sources with a wealth of much more dubious data from later periods; this approach was epitomised by John Morris’s fat, exciting book, The Age of Arthur(Weidenfeld, 1973). The interest stirred up by scholars resulted in a flood of historical fiction in the 1960s and 1970s. Most was produced by Englishmen, though Englishwomen such as Rosemary Sutcliff and Mary Stewart were among the most prominent authors. All treated Arthur as a historical character in a post-Roman setting, with realistic British landscapes and careful use of historical and archaeological data. 
The reason for this virtual unanimity was that the Arthur it portrayed was so useful. With the loss of Britain’s Empire and its status as a great power, there was a real possibility that the cement was being taken out of the United Kingdom. It needed a new common past to which to appeal and the ‘age of Arthur’ promised not only a glorious one but a hitching of mainstream British identity to the kinder, greener one of the Celts. In addition, Arthur could become the ideal countercultural monarch. Usually portrayed on the book covers of the time as a long-haired guy with trailing moustaches and designer jewellery, he could easily be transplanted to a motorbike or a rock festival. To those who mourned the loss of imperial Britain he could be viewed as the last defender of Roman civilisation; to those who identified with revolutionaries, he was a resistance-leader against English aggression. He was a genuinely classless, pan-British hero who made patriotism, monarchy and history seem cool
Today this view of Arthur seems almost as distant as post-Roman Britain itself. Most experts in that period now ignore him altogether, while those who don’t have no agreement over how he should be regarded. Thomas Green’s Concepts of Arthur (Tempus, 2007) called him a pagan Celtic god or giant turned into a historical hero because his people needed one; this is at least kinder than Nicholas Higham’s King Arthur (Routledge, 1992), which had decided that he was the invention of a ninth-century Welsh journalist. Graham Anderson’s King Arthur in Antiquity (Routledge, 2004) thought him a misunderstanding of ancient Greek myth and Howard Reid’s Arthur the Dragon King (Headline, 2001) rooted him in Caucasian mythology. Edwin Pace, in Arthur and the Fall of Roman Britain (Invermark, 2008), has decided that he was actually a different fifth-century character, usually known as Vortigern, while Miles Russell announced in Current Archaeology (April 2009) that he was a later confusion of two others, the British general Ambrosius and the Saxon king Aelle.
Meanwhile, novels about him are more numerous than ever, but the typical author of one since the 1980s has been an American woman. Not surprisingly, the British landscape portrayed in them has become distinctly hazy and any connection with the known history and archaeology of the sub-Roman period has almost disappeared. The Romans have now joined the invading English as stock hate-figures and Arthur is firmly a romantic Celt, normally operating in a world in which fairies, gods, werewolves and unicorns are as important as human figures. The prototype of this whole genre was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon (Michael Joseph, 1983).
In part, the change has been due to a shift in scholarship. Archaeologists have abandoned their quest for proof of his existence, as none has appeared, and sites without Arthurian associations have proved just as rich in post-Roman finds. Historians have admitted that there is no solid documentary evidence for it and none is likely to be found. In fiction, fantasy literature has replaced historical and detective novels as the most popular genre. More generally, however, it is because of a further shift in culture, from a yearning for cohesive national identities to a celebration of multi-ethnic, multicultural societies. This is where Arthur can win again and so ensure his continued popularity; in an age of individual choice, the nebulous nature of his historical character ensures that we can all have the Arthur that we want. The greatest medieval hero has become the perfect postmodern one.

The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503

Portrait of Margaret of Anjou

By Miri Rubin | Published in History Today 2005 
 Miri Rubin reviews a title on medieval-era queens.
The Last Medieval Queens: English Queenship 1445-1503
J.L. Laynesmith
Oxford UP  £35  312pp ISBN 0199247374
Joanna Laynesmith addresses a subject ripe for historical treatment and does it ample justice. She treats the lives of four women who lived as queens during that most turbulent of periods, what Shakespeare named the Wars of the Roses. The four queens in question – Margaret of Anjou, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville and Elizabeth of York – were different in temperament, rank, education, but each was forced to make a life within the institution of queenship. This institution was already well-formed at the beginning of the period; by 1445 a clear etiquette existed around the diplomacy of marriage-making, rituals for coronation of queens were well-practised, bureaucratic underpinning for the queen’s household, as well as convention for visual representation of female majesty. Yet each one of the queens also moulded the institution, and in this manner contributed to the political culture, while also forming a legacy of expectations for the next queen.
The Last Medieval Queens is divided into five thematic chapters which treat the selection of the queen, rituals of queenship, queens as mothers, the queen’s family circle and court and household. Within each chapter all our queens are treated, yet in some a single figure may dominate, for good historical reasons. It is not surprising, therefore, to find much detailed attention, based on royal accounts, to the rituals which surrounded Margaret of Anjou’s arrival in England and the celebrations which followed; while Elizabeth Woodville and her ample circle of kin loom large in the chapter on the Queen’s Family.
The book is the fruit of a great deal of careful work on a wide range of sources – royal accounts, chronicles, visual representations, royal prayer books, treatises on conduct. It also displays sustained and sophisticated thought about the nature of politics, about the tensions between the public and the private in the lives of those who rule (then as now). She is attuned to the meaning of femininity and the many frames within which women were perceived in the later Middle Ages. These sophisticated approaches are an example of integrated medieval studies at their best, and are a tribute not only to Dr Laynesmith’s own intelligence and sensible eclecticism, but also to the training that she received at the York Centre for Medieval Studies. Only such ease in treating religious sources as well as chancery rolls, art as well as parliament, can produce a fuller understanding of late medieval political culture.
This political culture arises from The Last Medieval Queens not only as deeply dynastic in its loyalties, but also imbued with the language of religion. The degree to which politics absorbed religious imagery is becoming increasingly clear from current research. The late medieval queen, and especially the late medieval royal mother, turned to the powerful image of the Virgin Mary. Subjects sought in the Marian idiom apt modes of address, as when the burghers of Norwich chose a performance of the ‘Salutation of the Virgin and Elisabeth’ to welcome Elizabeth Woodville into their city in 1469. Henry VII and Elizabeth of York were embraced as members of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in London in 1503. Fecundity and purity, majesty and wisdom in the figure of Mary offered consolation and example to women who lost sons to the bloody politics of dynastic strife.
Weaving together institutions and personality, family and realm, intimacy and ceremony,The Last Medieval Queens, is a wise book by a young and lively scholar. It is well written and beautifully produced, and is worthy of a wide readership both academic and popular.

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Making of the Wars of the Roses



When he wrote this essay in 1967, Alan Rogers was a young researcher at Nottingham University and part of the new wave of historians setting out to rescue the 15th century from neglect. Because this period of perceived lawlessness and disorder seemed to interrupt the onward march of the English constitution, it had come to be dismissed as an age unworthy of serious study. The intellectual climate in which Rogers worked is reflected in his focus on ‘maintenance’, the perversion of the course of justice by the mighty in favour of their adherents through means of bribery and intimidation.Rogers extended this concept to encompass the practice of retaining by indenture and the payment of money,which had been named ‘bastard feudalism’ in the 19th century because it was perceived as a debasement of true, legitimate feudal relationships and could result in a breakdown of law and order.
Maintenance was accompanied by ‘good lordship’ as an evil besetting 15th-century society and Rogers thought it ‘the key to the troubles’. The idea that ‘good lordship’ (a contemporary concept) was one of the evils of the day no longer holds.Historians now recognise that it was central to the whole operation of political society from the crown down.A lord was expected to assist those who served him through a form of noblesse oblige which extended beyond securing offices or supporting legal action into a code of behaviour, hospitality and charity. Good lordship was an ideal to which all nobles were expected to aspire and a society founded on its principles would flourish, not falter.
The influence of the historian Lewis Namier (1888-1960) on 15th-century studies lay behind this negative view of good lordship and ‘maintenance’. Namier, a historian of the 18th century, had argued that ideology played no part in the politics of the first decade of the reign of George III (1760-1820) and that politicians sought only place and power. The practice of politics was seen as solely about the operation of patronage (‘good lordship’), faction and the pursuit of office. So too in the 15th century. ‘There was no principle involved,’Rogers concluded,‘save that of the preservation of one’s self and one’s property.’We all concurred. Perhaps the most important change since then has been the rediscovery of the principles and ideals that underlay the conflict for power. These ideals include honour, justice and, above all, government for the common good. It is in those terms that rival lords justified their actions.
Rogers’ article was influenced greatly by a contemporary work,Robin Storey’s The End of the House of Lancaster, published the year before, which presented a comprehensive new account of the drift to civil war. Storey argued that the Wars of the Roses resulted from an escalation of private feuds driven by this unprincipled pursuit of power. This was the 1960s and the notion of escalation was prominent in controversies about the Vietnam War. In a reiteration of Storey’s thesis, Rogers described how the various feuds created by maintenance and the exercise of good lordship coalesced into what he called ‘two great pyramids of power’ under the rival dukes of Somerset and York.A climax came when Henry VI ‘maintained Somerset’s pyramid’and was subsequently brought down by York.
Not all agreed. Others argued that it was just the reverse.Breakdown did not end at the top; it began there. The key factor was not an escalation of feuds, but the failure of the crown to impose order.And historians still discuss whether there were deeper social and political causes. Did ruling England present more challenges in 1450 than in 1350? Did the virtual bankruptcy of the crown as a result of war in France, the unrest flowing from the loss of that war and the impact of recession in the mid- 15th century destabilise the kingdom? Were there matters of principle at stake? Or was it just down to weak monarchy? Would all have been well had the feeble Henry VI demonstrated a capacity to rule? After all, his father proved capable of imposing his authority on the magnates and governed effectively.
Thus Alan Rogers’ article was an early contribution to a still vibrant debate about the Wars of the Roses. Today it is a topic in which most historians balance the motivation of politicians between the play of principle and ideology and the naked pursuit of office and power And it is a subject, like any other, in which the historian weighs up the influence of underlying economic, social and political forces against the impact of personalities and chance.

King Arthur and the Church

A page from a copy of 'Parzival' shows the title character, centre, with Arthur, c.1220. AKG Images/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek Munich
Often portrayed as a paragon of Christian virtue, the real King Arthur was an embarrassment to the Church, writes Simon Andrew Stirling.
A page from a copy of 'Parzival' shows the title character, centre, with Arthur, c.1220. AKG Images/Bayerische Staatsbibliothek MunichCaesarius, a Cistercian monk at Heisterbach, near Bonn, told a revealing story in about 1220. The abbot at the time, Gevard of Heisterbach, was preaching when he realised that the monks of his chapter were dozing. Gevard suddenly exclaimed: ‘Listen, I have something new and wonderful to tell you! There was once a king whose name was Arthur ...’ Instantly the monks were rapt with attention. The abbot had proved his point: even the Cistercian brethren were more interested in the legends of Arthur than the Scriptures.

The European craze for all things Arthurian was at its height. A ‘well-known storyteller’ named Bleddri latimer ap Kadifor had travelled from Wales to Poitou in western France early in the 12th century, bringing with him the tales of Arthur and his heroes. Later French romancers would alter Bleddri’s name to Bleheris, Blihis and, eventually, Blaise, the ‘master of Merlin’ and an authority on the legends of the Grail.

Bleddri told his tales to the Count of Poitiers – probably William VII, whose granddaughter Eleanor of Aquitaine inspired a widespread fascination with the Arthurian legends, not least through her patronage of such poets as Robert Wace (whose Roman de Brut introduced the Round Table to European literature) and Chrétien de Troyes, who built on Bleddri’s legacy in his romances of Lancelot, Yvain, Perceval and the Graal. Europe was soon thrilling to the stories of Arthur and his knights. The Lais of Marie de France, Béroul’s Tristan, the anonymous Queste del Saint Graal and Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival all appeared within a few short years of each other.
Even the Church was not immune to the lure of the legends. The Romanesque cathedral at Modena in Italy was consecrated in 1184. The cathedral’s north portal boasts a marble archivolt carved with a scene depicting ‘Artus de Bretania’ and his warriors besieging a castle. But there were those who looked askance at the growing popularity of Arthur. The cult of the ‘Holy Grail’ in particular troubled the ecclesiastical authorities. In his Bloodline of the Holy Grail (1996) Laurence Gardner argued that Grail lore ‘remains an unproclaimed heresy’ and was ‘openly condemned’ by the Roman Church. Imagery of the Grail was certainly adopted by sects which the Church deemed to be heretical. For example, the Cathars became associated with it and, during the Albigensian Crusade against them in the Languedoc region of France in the early 1200s, orthodox churchmen railed against the Grail romances. Like the songs of the troubadours, the romances of Chrétien de Troyes reflected the courtly ideals of the nobility of southern France, which challenged the orthodoxy of the Church; Wolfram von Eschenbach, meanwhile, located the Grail Castle in the Pyrenees, the very heartland of the Albigensian heresy.
The crusade against the Cathars was led by the Abbot of Cîteaux. Reputedly, when he was asked how the soldiers might tell the difference between Cathars and true Catholics, he replied, ‘Kill them all – God will recognise his own.’ This anecdote was handed down by Caesarius, who also told the disapproving story of Abbot Gevard and the monks of Heisterbach. The Cistercians, it would seem, were in the vanguard of attempts to purge Christendom of its love affair with all things Arthurian.

A change of image

But the legends of Arthur continued to delight and inspire, much to the chagrin of the Church. The solution was simple and effective. Arthur and his knights were brought into the orthodox fold, becoming the perfect Christian king and his pious cohorts. A key moment in this process of transformation occurred in 1184 when the old church at Glastonbury in Somerset caught fire. Funds were required to build a more resilient structure. Henry II (r.1154-89), Eleanor of Aquitaine’s second husband, threw the monks of Glastonbury a lifeline when he wondered aloud whether the remains of King Arthur might not be found in the abbey grounds.
The monks took the hint. Under the supervision of Henri de Sully, formerly Abbot of Fécamp in Normandy, an excavation was put in motion in 1191. In no time at all the monks uncovered a grave which they claimed was that of Arthur and ‘his second wife’, Guenevere. Henri de Sully then sought the maximum publicity to encourage a flood of pilgrims to Glastonbury.
Around 1200 the French poet Robert de Boron composed his Joseph d’Arimathie (or Le Roman de l’estoire dou Graal), asserting that the ‘Graal’ of legend was in fact the Cup of the Last Supper. Christ’s blood had been collected in the cup, which was then taken to Britain and the ‘Vales of Avalon’ in the west. De Boron was the first writer to give the Grail an unequivocally Christian provenance. The myth he spawned is likely to owe much to the fact that the abbey of Fécamp in Normandy had capitalised on its collection of sacred relics, which included a bone from the arm of Mary Magdalene and a quantity of Christ’s blood. Following Henri de Sully from Fécamp to Glastonbury, these money-spinning items transmogrified into the bones of Guenevere and the chalice which had held the holy blood. Arthur was on his way to becoming a Christian.
Prior to the Glastonbury hoax the Church had regarded Arthur as an enemy. A raft of ‘charter myths’ appeared during the 12th century, as ecclesiastical institutions sought to avoid paying taxes. To do so they needed to prove that their lands had been granted to them by a ruling monarch. The monastery founded by St Cadog at Llancarfan in South Wales in the sixth century led the way in making use of Arthur’s memory for its own purposes. The Life of St Cadog by Lifris of Llancarfan dates from about 1100. In this Arthur is first encountered with two companions, Cai and Bedwyr. Seeing the father of Cadog eloping with Cadog’s mother, Arthur’s first instinct is to rape the woman. He has to be talked out of doing this by his comrades. Later in the same account Arthur seeks compensation for the deaths of three of his men at the hands of a murderer whom Cadog has been sheltering. Cadog cheats Arthur out of his payment. Surprisingly Arthur then begs the saint’s forgiveness and bestows on him a generous gift of land.
About 30 years after the Life of St Cadog was written another monk of Llancarfan, Caradoc, composed a Life of Gildas, which also featured Arthur. Caradoc claimed that Arthur laid siege to Glastonbury because the ‘king of the Summer Country’ had abducted Arthur’s queen and was holding her captive on Glastonbury Tor. St Gildas was one of the churchmen who intervened to mollify Arthur – who in turn rewarded the Church with plenty of land.
These and other saints’ Lives of the period routinely portrayed Arthur as a thug who was easily humbled by a man of the Church. Arthur would then repent and donate land to the saint. In the absence of any legal charter this was often as close as a monastery could get to demonstrating that it owed its wealth to a royal grant. Such fables served a dual purpose: they emphasised the sanctity of a humble saint who stood up to a violent hoodlum while protesting that the original benefactor had been that most famous of kings.
It was all a far cry from the Christian exemplar that Arthur would later become. The medieval scribes inadvertently helped to foster the legends that would sweep through Europe like a contagion. Geoffrey of Monmouth seems to have been a friend of Caradoc of Llancarfan. A few years after Caradoc wrote his Life of Gildas Geoffrey completed his pseudo-historical Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), roughly a fifth of which was devoted to ‘King Arthur’. The genie was out of the bottle. The Church, which had so recently used Arthur as a convenient foil, would soon find itself slaying ‘heretics’ for having taken the legends to heart, while at the same time the monks of Glastonbury cashed in on his reputation. Before long, Arthur’s conversion was complete. No longer was he the robber-baron who gifted land to early saints. The Church now claimed to have put him on the throne. But the question remains: was the real Arthur a Christian prince or the enemy of God? Paradoxically, were it not for the Church, with its effective monopoly of the written word, we would know next to nothing about Arthur.

The first Arthur

The first Arthur to appear in the records was, in fact, a Scottish prince and a contemporary of St Columba (521-597 ad). A hundred years after Columba’s death his hagiographer, Adomnán of Iona, described the saint’s ordination in 574 of Áedán mac Gabráin as King of the Scots. In keeping with traditional practice, Columba used the occasion to predict the future for King Áedán and his family. Asked which of Áedán’s sons would succeed his father to the throne, St Columba declared that neither Artuir nor Domangart nor Eochaid Fínd would become king, ‘for they will fall in battle, slain by enemies’.
Adomnán confirmed in his Vita Sanctae Columbae that Artuir and Eochaid Fínd were later killed in a battle with the ‘Miathi’, a tribe of southern Picts whose name is preserved in the hillforts of Dumyat and Myot Hill, east and west of Stirling. At the time, Stirling was a vital bulwark on the front line of British-held territory – a legacy of the Roman occupation, which had divided the Britons from their Pictish cousins to the north. The Fords of Frew on the River Forth were the access points for marauding tattooed spearmen from the hellish lands of the Picts. The Castle Rock at Stirling guarded this vulnerable backdoor to Britain.
Writing his verse romance of Tristan in about 1200 the French poet Béroul identified Stirling as the site of the Round Table. This was apparently the central mound of the ornamental earthwork, now known as the King’s Knot, which rises in the meadow beside the Castle Rock. Archaeologists from Glasgow University announced in August 2011 that they had found evidence of a ‘circular feature’ beneath the surface of the King’s Knot mound. The tradition that the Round Table lay in the field below Stirling Castle goes back a long way. The site is just nine miles north of the huge Roman military station of Colania, which is now in the Camelon suburb of Falkirk. Revising Camden’s Britannia in 1695, Edward Gibson, Bishop of London, remarked of the Colania remains:
There is yet a confused appearance of a little ancient city, where the common people believe there was formerly a road for ships. They call it Camelot.
The Irish Annals also record the death of Artuir, or Arthur, the son of the King of the Scots. The Annals of Tigernach indicate that four of King Áedán’s sons – ‘Bran & Domangart & Eochaid Fínd & Artur’ – died in a battle fought in 594 in the Pictish province of Circenn or, as we now know it, Angus. Like the Annals of Ulster (which date the battle to 596), the Annals of Tigernach were drawn from earlier notes made in the margins of the Easter Tables compiled at St Columba’s abbey on Iona.
Shortly after Columba, first abbot of Iona, died in 597, an Irish bard composed an elegy for the saint – Amra Choluimb Chille – remarking that Columba had ‘turned the mouths of the fierce ones who lived on the Tay’ to the ‘will of the King’. The monks of Iona were therefore familiar with the Tayside region in which Arthur son of Áedán was killed in a battle fought just a couple of years before Columba’s death.
One hundred years later, Adomnán, ninth abbot of Iona, stated that Arthur was one of two sons of King Áedán, who died fighting against the Miathi. Presumably, this was the battle fought in about 594 in Circenn, where the monks of Iona were already spreading the Gospel among the southern Picts (according to Adomnán, Arthur’s brother Domangart ‘fell slaughtered in battle in England’ soon afterwards). The monks of Iona evidently knew that at least two sons of Áedán died fighting the Picts in Angus and one of them was almost certainly Arthur – the very first Arthur to be named in historical documents. St Columba, meanwhile, was an ‘island soldier’ whose monks doubled as warriors.

Four-and-twenty horsemen

Born into the Irish nobility, Columba had been exiled to Dalriada – an Irish enclave on the west coast of Scotland – because he had led an uprising in 561 against the High King of Ireland, Diarmait mac Cerbaill. Diarmait had marked his accession to the Irish throne with a pagan kingship ceremony known as the Feast of Tara. He took for his queen a woman named Mugain, whose father maintained a base in the Irish-held territory of Dyfed in south-west Wales. Conchrad Fair-Beard, the father of Mugain, also had a son named Cai, who would enter the legends as the foster-brother of Arthur.
Columba’s arrival on the Isle of Iona in 563 brought him into conflict with the family of Áedán mac Gabráin. The fact that he ordained Áedán as King of the Scots can be misleading. The account later written by Adomnán of Iona makes it clear that Columba had opposed Áedán’s bid for the throne. The saint even issued a warning to King Áedán and his sons. The likelihood is that Columba’s antipathy towards the Cenél nGabráin sprang from the same source as his hostility towards Diarmait mac Cerbaill: Arthur and his family were pagans.
Christianity was one of several cults introduced into Britain during the days of Roman rule. There were occasional flare-ups – ‘civil troubles’, as St Gildas called them – but by Arthur’s time, the old and new religions were capable of coexistence. Arthur’s uncle, known to the Britons as Cynon, remained close to Arthur in the early British legends. The Scots came to know him as Kentigern, the first bishop and patron saint of Glasgow. Likewise Arthur’s cousin became a saint of the early Church. He appears in the ninth-century Book of Deer as St Drostán, a youth who accompanied St Columba on a diplomatic mission to the King of the Picts and established a monastic settlement at Old Deer in Aberdeenshire.
Drostán is a Gaelic version of the Pictish name Drust. The Britons called him Drystan. In the hands of the Continental romancers this later became ‘Tristan’. Quite how Christian such warrior-princes as Cynon and Drystan were is a moot point. The Scottish Church saw them as saints. The Britons, however, thought of them as magicians. A 15th-century list of the ‘Four-and-Twenty Horsemen of the Court of Arthur’ names other saints of the early Church as members of the Round Table alliance; they include Cadog, whose medieval Life features a disreputable Arthur and his foster-brother Cai.

Dove of the Church

It was at the monastery founded by St Cadog near Stirling that Arthur was supposedly defrauded of his compensation, as Lifris of Llancarfan recalled in his Life of St Cadog. The 24 warriors of Arthur’s Round Table were his teulu – his ‘war-band’ or ‘family’. Each individual named in the 15th-century list was contemporary with Artuir mac Áedáin and a kinsman by blood or fosterage. The Round Table brought together both Christian and pagan in a common cause: the defence of North Britain.
Columba, however, was intent on establishing his own Church. He had already shown his intolerance of political rivals by going to war with the pagan High King of Ireland. There would be no place for rivals in politics or religion in a Scotland dominated by the followers of the ‘Dove of the Church’. By the year 590 Arthur and his comrades had driven the Northumbrian Angles back to the sea. The Britons had the Anglian warlords pinned down at Lindisfarne while an Irish contingent was besieging Bamburgh, a little further down the coast. There might never have been a country called England if the Angles had lost their foothold in the North. But the British counterattack faltered when Arthur’s Cumbrian kinsman, Urien, was assassinated on the sands of Budle Bay.
Arthur and his allies had been undermined by treachery. Morgan Mwynfawr (‘Wealthy’) had lost his Northumbrian kingdom at an early age, when the Angles declared Ida their first ‘English’ king in 547. At a later date Morgan had overthrown Arthur’s maternal grandfather, Clydno of Edinburgh, and hounded his son Cynon out of Lothian. Although Morgan became one of the 24 members of Arthur’s teulu, his sights were set on a kingdom of his own. It was he who commissioned the assassination of Urien, having struck a deal with Arthur’s enemies. He was not alone in trafficking with the Angles: Columba’s baker on the Isle of Iona was an ‘Englishman’.
Having betrayed his compatriots at Lindisfarne, Morgan the Wealthy fled north into Aberdeenshire, taking Arthur’s wife with him. Four years of planning and preparation passed before Arthur set out on his final campaign. A great fleet sailed from the Firth of Forth, up the Pictish coast, to make land at Cruden Bay, near Peterhead. The map recalls that the place where Arthur led his mounted warriors ashore was also known as Longhaven or Llongborth, in the British tongue.
‘In Llongborth I saw Arthur,’ sang the poet Taliesin of this violent amphibious assault. Arthur’s quarry was the renegade Morgan and his kidnapped queen, Gwenhwyfar. Surrounded by Pictish supporters, Morgan struck southwards, heading towards British-held territory and picking up Anglian reinforcements on the way. The two sides eventually met on the border of the Gowrie region which had been annexed by Arthur’s grandfather Gabrán in the 520s and reconquered by Arthur as recently as 580 at the battle of Badandun Hill.
The location of the final battle is revealed in the sixth-century poem, Y Gododdin. Wrongly ascribed to a theoretical battle fought at Catterick, the poem of ‘The Gododdin’ – the tribesmen of Lothian – in fact discloses precisely where Arthur was mortally wounded. ‘Again the battle-shout about the Alledd,’ sang the poet Aneirin, who was there. The ‘Alledd’ was the Hill of Alyth, east of Blairgowrie. Arthur had taken up position on the south bank of the River Isla, on the hollow plain of Camno, immediately to the east of a ridge known to this day as Arthurbank. The name of his enemy is recalled at Morganstone, seven miles away along the course of the River Ericht. This was in the Pictish province of Circenn, and among Arthur’s opponents were the spearmen of the Miathi.

Mixed messages

An ancient Welsh tale reveals that one of Arthur’s men – Iddog, son of Mynyo, the ‘Churn of Britain’ – instigated the bloodshed by relaying false messages between the rival commanders. The name Iddog was a British attempt at the Gaelic Aedóc, a variant form of Cadog. Like St Cadog, the ‘Churn of Britain’ was a ‘son of Mynyo’, or rather Mynyw, the Welsh name for the settlement of St David’s in Dyfed.
The monastery founded by Cadog in central Scotland is now known as Kilmadog, the ‘Chapel of My Aedóc’, near Doune. The chapel was essentially a daughter cell of St Columba’s monastery on Iona. Columba called it cella Diuni, while in the Y Gododdinpoem Aneirin referred to it as Din Dywydd – from Dewydd, the old Welsh form of the name David.
Aneirin’s elegy of the last battle captured the shock of what happened:
To battle! To battle! Blow the horn! Blow the horn! A tempest of pilgrims, a raucous pilgrim army ...
From Din Dywydd they attacked, groaned Aneirin. Marching up from Cadog’s monastery near Doune, the ‘raucous’ pilgrims attacked Arthur from the rear on the Mains of Camno. Arthur fought his way across the plain to Arthurbank, where, up until the 1790s, an ‘Arthurstone’ megalith marked the spot where he fell.
Within a year of that battle the Northumbrian Angles had overrun much of North Britain. Arthur’s father Áedán led an army against them in 603 but was heavily defeated. He died five years later and, in a departure from tradition, was not buried on the Isle of Iona, but on the Isle of Bute. Iona was now the preserve of the very people who had conspired against Aedan and his family. By the mid-seventh century, St Columba’s community on Iona had commenced its conversion of the Angles under St Aidan of Lindisfarne. The first king whose burial on Iona is a matter of historical record was an English one, Ecgfrith, in 685.
The treacherous surprise attack unleashed against Arthur in 594 put an end to the hopes of the Britons. Columba had neutered his rivals by handing the Old North to the conquering Angles. His actions changed the course of British history. They also left a nasty taste. The very name of Arthur became an embarrassment to the early Church. So the clergy tried to forget him. Then, when it suited them, they invoked Arthur as a bad king who was easily outwitted by early churchmen like Cadog.
But the phenomenal popularity of the legends, especially among ‘heretics’, created a problem for the medieval Church. This could only be ameliorated by reinventing Arthur as the perfect Christian king.
Simon Andrew Stirling is the author of The King Arthur Conspiracy: How a Scottish Prince Became a Mythical Hero, published by The History Press.